A tree sparrow

Wildlife well-suited for winter weather

Snow, frigid temperatures, ice and strong winds are the ingredients for hard times for wildlife and humans. We experienced them all this past week and weekend. Winter is being winter. Some may wonder about the various creatures and how they each cope with these harsh conditions. Many have heavy fur coats to keep their bodies warm. Snowshoe hares turn white to match the snow and help them escape their enemies. Hares and rabbits usually forage at night for food, and they rest in their forms during the day. These forms are just shallow holes or depressions in the grass and under shrubs. They don’t go underground as some small animals do. They can remain motionless for a long time and escape detection by predators. European rabbits live underground in large communities called “warrens.” If you have read the book “Watership Down,” you understand about warrens. It is a good book, and having read it before my first sighting of a real warren, I found the whole experience very exciting. The European rabbit is very large. Our Maine hare is much larger than the cottontail seen often in lower New England.

The tracks of the snowshoe hare are very distinctive and easy to follow, but you need to know that the large back feet land in front of the small front feet, so be careful to observe closely so you follow it in the right direction. Consult a good track book or go online for photos of tracks.

Members of the squirrel family leave distinctive tracks that are easy to follow. There will be plenty of these found in the snow. Trailing them can be difficult at times, for squirrels frequently run up the trees, and the tracks then disappear. Look around your feeders for nice tracks.

An animal with a long tail shows the tail drag mark in snow. Whether it is a tiny mouse, muskrat or beaver, you can see the tail drag track. Look around ponds and streams for mammals with noticeable tails.

Porcupines make a wide, alternate track in sort of a waddling design.

Coyotes can be difficult to tell from a red fox track. If in doubt, take a photo of the track with some recognizable object, perhaps a mitten or your foot, in the photo for size comparison. Send it to me, and we can get it identified by some experts. Some information about where you saw the track would be helpful in the identification as well.

Bobcat prints have a circular pattern and are about twice the size of a house cat. The stride is about 12-14 inches. A skunk‘s track wanders about and is not in a straight line. When a skunk runs, however, the track is quite different, sort of slanted but going in a relatively straight direction. Tracks can be interesting wildlife puzzles to figure out. Often, they tell the story of some creature being caught for lunch, and with the clues left behind, you can know who attacked and who got eaten.

A short while ago, a friend sent me a photo of a strange, small bird feeding at her feeder. It was mostly white, a little bright yellow near the head, a finch-like bill and the size and body shape of a finch. I believe it to be partially albino goldfinch. The other birds in the flock just accepted it as one of their own. Color variations occur every now and then in wild creatures.

Watch for pine siskins at your feeder now. These small birds are irregular migrants into Maine. They are active birds, landing in a tree, flying up again and then back to the same spot. They often find their way to your feeder in the company of goldfinches, where they hope to find millet, seeds and cracked butternuts, their favored foods. Their call has been described as sounding a bit like the sound of steam escaping from a radiator.

Nothing in weather daunts the spirit of a tree sparrow. This small sparrow sporting a jaunty, reddish cap is a delight to have at your feeder. Look for the single, black breast spot. These sparrows are frequent visitors to your feeder, and they also like to cling to a grass stalk in order to snatch a seed from the plant or to search for those seeds that have fallen into the snow.

Mice and voles travel safely under the snow now, but even though not seen, a fox knows they’re there, and the fox is often seen waiting in a field, watching and then suddenly pouncing on an unseen mouse or vole in the snow. Foxes have very good hearing and most often are successful in catching the mouse or vole. I spent a long time one morning watching a fox hunting for lunch in a snowy field in Bass Harbor. When the fox leaped into the air and then pounced on the tiny rodent, it was a lovely ballet movement, definitely graceful in every way. I could just visualize dancers in fox costumes, performing on stage mimicking the movements. Life for wild creatures is always a game of looking for food in order to survive and trying to avoid being eaten yourself.

Watch the edges of any of the roads that may have been salted recently, for crossbills often are seen foraging in such places for the salt. Both the red crossbills and the white-winged crossbills are seen here. Their bill actually is crossed like a damaged pair of shears, but they know how to eat with this odd bill.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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